Features Screen Published 12 January 2015

Film Review: Birdman

Our writers discuss Alejandro González Iñárritu’s critic-delighting, critic-bashing new film, a movie about identity, art - and theatre.
Exeunt Staff

David Ralf: Towards the end of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman which I can only describe as the perfect film for any theatre geek with a weakness for superhero films (or a comic-book nut with a theatre habit) there is a brilliant and brief scene between Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, a half-forgotten blockbuster star attempting to direct and act in a Broadway come-back, and Lindsay Duncan’s theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson – the ‘only person in New York’ whose opinion on his work matters. Before Riggan says a word, Tabitha promises she’s going to kill his play. She’s speaking the day before press night.

Birdman is written, directed and edited to look like a single continuous shot – we experience the argument that follows as a single messy exchange of spittle that hacks open the delicate truce between practitioners and critics – Riggan tells Tabitha she can’t create, that she’s just a ‘labeller’, Tabitha lambasts Riggan for coming out to the East Coast and taking up space in a Broadway theatre on nothing but his celebrity status. The elitist defends herself as a gatekeeper, the one-time star pleads artistic vision and practice. It’s especially unpleasant as neither really listens or responds to their accusations – for all the world during this two-minute scene they might as well be speaking different languages. This semantic gap continues to the end of the film as Riggan’s artistic vision is trumped by his superhero-playing past, and Tabitha completely misreads what happens onstage at the press night.

So Birdman is a critic-delighting film that suggests that critics and artists can’t speak sense to one another. At the same time it’s also a film that positions caped crusaders as the complete anathema to live theatre, and still smashes them together delightfully. It seems to me that there is something unresolved within, one or two ironies hiding in the film’s conception – and a warning, perhaps, to artists and critics of high and low brows alike.

Catherine Love: The other irony, of course, is one of casting. Michael Keaton, a washed-up actor best known for playing a superhero, makes his critical comeback playing a washed-up actor best known for playing a superhero, who in turn is hoping to prove his own seriousness with what appears to be an ill-fated Broadway debut. If fiction and reality get tangled up in Iñárritu’s film, then they are no less knotted together in its reception. It’s a bold move, and kudos to Keaton – on whom the similarities were surely not lost – for taking the role. Luckily for him, the critics have been more receptive than the film’s chilly Tabitha Dickinson.

While the distinction between high and low brow – or between art and “good old fashioned apocalyptic porn” – is clearly one of the film’s concerns, I found myself more interested in what it had to say about artistic endeavour and the pursuit of authenticity. This might be because just a couple of days before seeing Birdman I watched Synechdoche, New York, another piece of cinema about theatre. Charlie Kaufman’s film revolves around a similarly obsessive director, Caden Cotard (a devastating Philip Seymour Hoffman), who dedicates years upon years of his life to creating something “real”. Terrified of death and desperate to complete his one great work, he reconstructs his entire neighbourhood – including representations of all the people inhabiting it – inside an unfeasibly huge warehouse, all in an effort to turn the mirror on himself. But the more Caden commits to realism, the more the real seems to dissolve into the represented.

There is a similar, if not quite so extreme, desire for authenticity in Birdman. Everyone involved in the production talks about “being real”, and one of the actors is so committed to theatrical veracity that he claims the stage is the only place where he doesn’t pretend. Broadway and Raymond Carver – whose short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” has been adapted for the stage by Riggan – presumably represent for the actor/director the legitimacy and integrity that were lacking from the Birdman movies. Or as he puts it, he wants to do something that matters. But is his endeavour to be admired or pitied?

As with Caden’s all-consuming project in Synechdoche, New York, it’s not entirely clear. Riggan’s daughter mocks him, writing off the production as a desperate attempt at regaining lost relevance: “You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter – and you know what, you’re right!” Representation becomes some kind of stand-in for existence; “being real” on stage replaces reality itself. The same eventually happens to Caden, who sacrifices his own identity for the sake of the “reality” he is representing.

It’s interesting that these dissections of stage realism take place within distinctly non-naturalistic films. Synechdoche, New York speeds up time and throws what is and isn’t real into constant doubt; Caden pops up in cartoons and TV commercials, which may or may not be his own delusions. In Birdman, a feathered superhero alter ego stalks Riggan through the streets of New York, before the actor later takes (or appears to take) flight. It seems that film – a medium capable of an arguably “purer” form of naturalism – needs to eschew realism in order to get at something about the particular ways in which theatre represents.

Birdman. Image: Fox Searchlight

Birdman. Image: Fox Searchlight

William Drew: Does Tabitha misread what happens on stage on press night though?  It’s become a kind of pop culture cliché to have the snooty critic misunderstand something entirely ridiculous and label it as brilliant, though it’s more frequently the world of conceptual art that is sent up than theatre.  I’m not sure that’s the case here though.  What she’s responding to is the “blood” on stage and she says in her review that this is literal as well as figurative.  Does she know what he did?  Does she know he tried to kill himself on stage during the press night of his own show?  Is this what she wants?  A sacrificial offering?  Catherine talks about how Caden in SNY sacrifices his own identity to the “reality” he is representing.  Perhaps Riggan attempts (unsuccessfully) to sacrifice himself to the search for authenticity or “honesty”, to use Carver’s fictional description of Riggan’s high school performance.  After all, it was Mike, the constant searcher for authenticity who complained about the “toy gun”, Mike who wanted to test the “liveness” in the previews.  Riggan does the livest, most authentic thing imaginable (well he doesn’t die but he does injure himself pretty badly so close) and I think this is exactly what Tabitha is responding to in her review.  The title of her review is also, I think, the subtitle of the film: “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”, so seems pretty central to the meaning of the whole thing, in one way or another.

Sarah Perry: I emerged from the film dazed and exhilarated – by the bravura performances, that dizzying camera-work and extraordinary final few seconds – but by the second Tube stop on my way home thought: oh, but the women.

It is not that Birdman would fail the Bechdel test (which, as an aside, I don’t consider a legitimate  test of a film’s worth): Emma Stone in particular has much to say on identity, on purpose, on the worth (if any) of art, and it’s difficult to imagine Lindsay Duncan’s acidic critic expending a moment’s thought on mere men.

And yet, there’s an uncomfortable sense that the women are ancillary, functioning as handmaidens to Norton and Keaton. It reminded me of that old adage about the falling tree making no noise if there’s no-one to hear: without the male leads, the women would simply not exist. They respond, they reflect, they amplify; they enable and they support. True, they do it remarkably well (and there’s pleasure in seeing Naomi Watts presented as a beauty, but one not required to pretend at being any younger than she is) but remove the men and they’d dissipate like sighs.

It remains dispiritingly the case that the default position is to make the most compelling roles – those force fields around which these films rotate – male. Why? Imagine Tilda Swinton, say, in the Norton role; imagine Annette Bening in place of Galifianakis. Impossible, of course, to summon up a potential female substitute for Keaton. We have had no woman actor play a superhero lead.

Lauren Mooney: I think the question of Tabitha reading or misreading what happens on stage is a really interesting one, not least because the fact that she’s written the review at all is so absurd. The actor-writer-director of this play just shot half his face off on stage, you know? She should be filing her thoughts on whatever the hell she’s just seen into the arts news desk, not reviews – but incorrigible labeller Tabitha can’t resist using her 500 words to decide whether or not a man’s suicide attempt is actually good art.

It seems to me like kind of a joke – because so much of Birdman is about the impulse to create art (in this case theatre, but it works for anything), and ultimately there seems to be a slight suggestion that the act of creating something is so intensely personal, even to try and review it is pretty absurd. You might just as well judge the artistic merit of somebody spilling their blood on the stage, hadn’t you? Nice suicide attempt. Better luck next time. Three stars.

I don’t think Iñárritu’s convinced by that idea, but he’s toying with it. And I really like that he manages to engage with such a high-brow concept – the impulse to create art and the difficulty of doing so – in such a completely entertaining way, and without ever wankily suggesting inspiration comes from some kind of divine inspiration. We don’t see enough of Riggan’s play to know how good it actually is or isn’t, but it’s his motives we’re supposed to be more interested in – whether he’s trying to communicate something profound, to gain the respect of his peers or to simply be heard. And is that impulse to be heard really any more noble than, say, a drunk yelling on a street corner?

In fact, one of my favourite moments in the film is when Riggan stumbles out of his fight with Tabitha and into a magical cave-looking off-licence to buy a very large amount of whiskey, and in the background there’s some lost drunk yelling in the street outside. It’s hard to ignore it, because this guy is screeching – and then you realise that what he’s yelling is the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth.

And ultimately, does it matter what inspired Riggan to stage his play? Maybe it was the desire to be taken seriously as an artist, maybe he had something he needed to say, maybe he just wanted to get invited to better parties again – the fact remains that he created something, and the thing he created mattered to some people. Job done. Same as, you know, if Raymond Carver was absolutely wankered when he sent a note backstage telling some high school kid he should keep at the acting, it doesn’t matter, does it; that was the catalyst for Riggan’s whole career, but everything afterwards was up to him. I guess it kind of reads like a plea to take things on their merits without worrying, Tabitha-style, about being a gatekeeper, who should be doing what, or whether or not a (for instance) superhero film can ever be good art.

Mary Halton: Agreed. What I liked most about Birdman was the sophistication of its parody. It’s difficult at first to figure out why it’s a comedy – I only laughed once, perhaps smiled a few times – until you realise that almost everyone in it is a complex caricature. A totally unmanageable star. A critic whose aim is to close shows. The director sleeping with one of the cast. For me, it was entirely sending up how overwrought we become in the artistic process and the determination that there is some inherent truth or reality in the text and characters that a director and actors and subsequently critics must mine for. The sanctity with which the work is treated is parodic – Riggan and Mike are only ever scurrying around trying to discern that supposed truth, attain the heart of or what’s ‘real’ in Carver’s characters. It’s somewhat telling that Mike does this by actually making mincemeat of Carver’s own words in the process – is the text being worshipped or only the process of worshipping the text?

What’s really real are the actual lives of the people on stage, the world outside the theatre; all things that Riggan has less of an idea of how to cope with and which slowly seem to fragment even as the play comes together. Everything connected with the production is so completely overblown – falling lights, onstage breakups, an uncontrollable actor, female actors suddenly making out because, hell, there’s not much else to do as a woman in this film if you’re not Emma Stone – but he can somehow deal with all of it in the pursuit of ‘making art’. He fights to remain in a world in which he is invisible and frequently scorned, whereas he is nothing but visible, nothing but admired outside the doors of the theatre.

Ultimately, as Lauren says, it doesn’t actually matter what any of the cast or critics think of the play; the two things that bump ticket sales are the addition of a star actor that everyone knows could well flip out and storm off stage mid performance, and a viral video of Riggan in his pants. Birdman strongly questions what it is that we think is important about making art, and how connected, if at all, that is to the audience’s experience of it. The film’s perspective, at least, is that they mainly want to see fame or the potential for failure. Sceptical in its own way, but also quite scathing of how introspective the whole process of making actually can be. Riggan storming in off-cue in his y fronts gives the audience just as much of a kick as when he plays the final scene straight, if not more.

We love a sacrifice story; hearing about how completely an actor or director or writer has immersed themselves in their creation and what it cost them. Pursuing the reality of the play and acknowledgement of the purity of his creation nearly costs him his life onstage, but I think it’s quite beautiful that for Riggan, the most real thing of all is Birdman – something that probably wouldn’t be characterised as art, but that he enjoyed and took pride in and didn’t find torturous. Though I can’t quite tell whether Iñárritu is telling us to get over ourselves on the ground, or simply learn to soar above all of it.

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